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Title: Verses of a V.A.D.
Author: Brittain, Vera Mary
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                          VERSES OF A V.A.D.

                           VERSES OF A V.A.D


                           VERA M. BRITTAIN

                     (V.A.D. LONDON/268, B.R.C.S.)


                        ERSKINE MACDONALD, LTD.

                             LONDON, W.C.1

                         _All Rights Reserved_

                     _First published August 1918_


                           TO THE MEMORY OF

                        ROLAND AUBREY LEIGHTON


                     DIED OF WOUNDS NEAR HÉBUTERNE

                          DECEMBER 23RD, 1915

    “Good-bye, sweet friend. What matters it that you
     Have found Love’s death in joy, and I in sorrow?
     For hand in hand, just as we used to do,
     We two shall live our passionate poem through
     On God’s serene to-morrow.”
                        R. A. L.


THESE poems, by a writer for whom I have literary hopes, belong very
clearly to that new and vigorous type of poetry which has sprung from
the stress of the last few years and has its root in things done and
suffered rather than in things merely imagined.

Until lately our very belief in the saying that the poet is born and not
made proved that we had completely accepted poetry as coming only from
within, spun, as it were, out of our inner consciousness, and either
quite unhelped, or else only partially helped, by active experiences
from without. We have always understood, of course, that such an
experience as, for instance, the sudden flashing upon us of a magnetic
face as a stranger passes in the street might set aglow a train of
thought that would quicken and melt into feeling, and the feeling would,
in turn, need--and find--expression in poetry.

So far as this we have admitted that outward occurrences in the course
of our quickly flying days can become a source of poetical inspiration.
But, in spite of the pointing finger of Kipling, most of us clung
desperately to the verse that had its sole origin in imaginative emotion
until the blaze of war in the world illumined our souls and showed all
of us that out of our simplest practical work can be struck sparks of
real and great and rare divine fire.

All the poems in this little book are the outcome of things very deeply
felt. It is very difficult for me to write of them because where there
is pain uttered in them, it has almost always been my pain as well as
the author’s. One or two of the sonnets condense the expression of
losses that have meant a life’s upheaval. One or two, again, are
practically a concrete record of simple human things observed and
suffered and of duty strenuously done. Here there is no leisured
dreaming, but sheer experience, solid and stored up, like the honey that
a bee’s labour has stored.

But this practical quality, while it has so much that makes it rich and
valuable, has also the one conspicuous disadvantage that the work is
often done under conditions of strain and turmoil that tell against
perfection of method. Some of these _Verses of a V.A.D._ were written in
almost breathless intervals of severe and devoted duty. The poem
entitled “The German Ward” is especially an example of this. In such
circumstances, it is difficult to achieve any literary ornamentation and
least of all that particular kind of simpleness which is the highest
form of finished art. In the case of several of the poems, both these
qualities have been achieved; yet, because of the difficulties, I make
an appeal for considerateness and tender sympathy in judging these first
shy flowers of the heart and mind of a young girl who has worked
unceasingly and self-forgettingly for the good of others since the days
of stress began, and who in her personal destiny has suffered as, I
hope, very few have suffered.




AUGUST 1914                            15


TO A FALLEN IDOL                       17

TO MONSEIGNEUR                         18

THE ONLY SON                           19

PERHAPS----                            20

A MILITARY HOSPITAL                    21

LOOKING WESTWARD                       22

THEN AND NOW                           24

MAY MORNING                            25

THE TWO TRAVELLERS                     27

ROUNDEL                                28


IN MEMORIAM: G.R.Y.T.                  31

A PARTING WORD                         32

TO MY BROTHER                          33

SIC TRANSIT----                        34

TO THEM                                35

OXFORD REVISITED                       36

THAT WHICH REMAINETH                   37

THE GERMAN WARD                        38

THE TROOP-TRAIN                        40

TO MY WARD-SISTER                      41

TO ANOTHER SISTER                      42

“VENGEANCE IS MINE”                    43

WAR                                    44

THE LAST POST                          45

THE ASPIRANT                           46

Acknowledgments are due to the Editor of _The Oxford Magazine_, in which
“May Morning” and “The Sisters buried at Lemnos” were first published.

        AUGUST 1914

    GOD said, “Men have forgotten Me;
      The souls that sleep shall wake again,
    And blinded eyes must learn to see.”

    So since redemption comes through pain
      He smote the earth with chastening rod,
    And brought Destruction’s lurid reign;

    But where His desolation trod
      The people in their agony
    Despairing cried, “There is no God.”



    ONE long, sweet kiss pressed close upon my lips,
      One moment’s rest on your swift-beating heart,
    And all was over, for the hour had come
            For us to part.

    A sudden forward motion of the train,
      The world grown dark although the sun still shone,
    One last blurred look through aching tear-dimmed eyes--
            And you were gone.


    O YOU who sought to rend the stars from Heaven
      But rent instead your too-ambitious heart,
    Know that with those to whom Love’s joy is given
      You have not, nor can ever have, a part.

    A nation’s loyalty might have been your glory,
      And men have blessed your name from shore to shore,
    But you have set the seal upon your story,
      And must go hence, alone for evermore.



    NONE shall dispute Your kingship, nor declare
      Another could have held the place You hold,
      For though he brought me finer gifts than gold,
    And laid before my feet his heart made bare
    Of all but love for me, and sighed despair
      If I but feigned my favours to withhold,
      And would repudiate as sadly cold
    The proud and lofty manner that You wear,

    He would not be my pure and stainless knight
      Of heart without reproach or hint of fear,
    Who walks unscathed amid War’s sordid ways
    By base desire or bloodshed’s grim delight,
      But ever holds his hero’s honour dear--
    Roland of Roncesvalles in modern days.

        _November 1915._

        THE ONLY SON

    THE storm beats loud, and you are far away,
            The night is wild,
    On distant fields of battle breaks the day,
            My little child?

    I sought to shield you from the least of ills
            In bygone years,
    I soothed with dreams of manhood’s far-off hills
            Your baby fears,

    But could not save you from the shock of strife;
            With radiant eyes
    You seized the sword and in the path of Life
            You sought your prize.

    The tempests rage, but you are fast asleep;
            Though winds be wild
    They cannot break your endless slumbers deep,
            My little child.



    PERHAPS some day the sun will shine again,
      And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
    And feel once more I do not live in vain,
      Although bereft of You.

    Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
      Will make the sunny hours of Spring seem gay,
    And I shall find the white May blossoms sweet,
      Though You have passed away.

    Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
      And crimson roses once again be fair,
    And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
      Although You are not there.

    Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
      To see the passing of the dying year,
    And listen to the Christmas songs again,
      Although You cannot hear.

    But, though kind Time may many joys renew,
      There is one greatest joy I shall not know
    Again, because my heart for loss of You
      Was broken, long ago.

          _February 1916._


    A MASS of human wreckage, drifting in
      Borne on a blood-red tide,
    Some never more to brave the stormy sea
      Laid reverently aside,
    And some with love restored to sail again
      For regions far and wide.



    “For a while the quiet body
     Lies with feet toward the Morn.”
       HYMN 499, A. & M.

    WHEN I am dead, lay me not looking East,
      But towards the verge where daylight sinks to rest,
    For my Beloved, who fell in War’s dark year,
      Lies in a foreign meadow, facing West.

    He does not see the Heavens flushed with dawn,
      But flaming through the sunset’s dying gleam;
    He is not dazzled by the Morning Star,
      But Hesper soothes him with her gentle beam.

    He faces not the guns he thrilled to hear,
      Nor sees the skyline red with fires of Hell;
    He looks for ever towards that dear home land
      He loved, but bade a resolute farewell.

    So would I, when my hour has come for sleep,
      Lie watching where the twilight shades grow grey;
    Far sooner would I share with him the Night
      Than pass without him to the Splendid Day.

        THEN AND NOW

“πάντα ῤει καἰ ούδένα μένει”

    ONCE the black pine-trees on the mountain side,
      The river dancing down the valley blue,
    And strange brown grasses swaying with the tide,
      All spoke to me of you.

    But now the sullen streamlet creeping slow,
      The moaning tree-tops dark above my head,
    The weeds where once the grasses used to grow
      Tell me that you are dead.


(_Note._--At Oxford on May 1st a Latin hymn is sung at sunrise by the
Magdalen choristers from the top of the tower.)

    THE rising sun shone warmly on the tower,
      Into the clear pure Heaven the hymn aspired
    Piercingly sweet. This was the morning hour
    When life awoke with Spring’s creative power,
      And the old City’s grey to gold was fired.

    Silently reverent stood the noisy throng;
      Under the bridge the boats in long array
    Lay motionless. The choristers’ far song
    Faded upon the breeze in echoes long.
      Swiftly I left the bridge and rode away.

    Straight to a little wood’s green heart I sped,
      Where cowslips grew, beneath whose gold withdrawn
    The fragrant earth peeped warm and richly red;
    All trace of Winter’s chilling touch had fled,
      And song-birds ushered in the year’s bright morn.

    I had met Love not many days before,
      And as in blissful mood I listening lay
    None ever had of joy so full a store.
    I thought that Spring must last for evermore,
      For I was young and loved, and it was May.

           *       *       *       *       *

    Now it is May again, and sweetly clear
      Perhaps once more aspires the Latin hymn
    From Magdalen tower, but not for me to hear.
    I toil far distant, for a darker year
      Shadows the century with menace grim.

    I walk in ways where pain and sorrow dwell,
      And ruin such as only War can bring,
    Where each lives through his individual hell,
    Fraught with remembered horror none can tell,
      And no more is there glory in the Spring.

    And I am worn with tears, for he I loved
      Lies cold beneath the stricken sod of France;
    Hope has forsaken me, by Death removed,
    And Love that seemed so strong and gay has proved
      A poor crushed thing, the toy of cruel Chance.

    Often I wonder, as I grieve in vain,
      If when the long, long future years creep slow,
    And War and tears alike have ceased to reign,
    I ever shall recapture, once again,
      The mood of that May morning, long ago.

          _May 1916._


    You met two travellers in the town
    Who promised you that they would take you down
    The valley far away
    To some strange carnival this Summer’s day.
            Take care,
    Lest in the crowded street
    They hurry past you with forgetting feet,
            And leave you standing there.



    BECAUSE you died, I shall not rest again,
      But wander ever through the lone world wide,
    Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

    I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
      The many lesser loves that still remain,
    But find in none my triumph and my pride;

    And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
      Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
    For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.

        _February 1918._



    O GOLDEN Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,
      With purple shadows flitting o’er thy crest,
    I kneel to thee in reverent devotion
      Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!

    Seldom they enter into song or story;
      Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,
    But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
      Of women dead beneath a distant star.

    No armies threatened in that lonely station,
      They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,
    But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,
      And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.

    Till mortal frailty could endure no longer
      Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,
    In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,
      Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.

    No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,
      No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,
    The only meed of their victorious dying
      Lives in the hearts of humble men they saved.

    Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,
      Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease,
    Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,
      The souls of women, lonely here at peace.

    O golden Isle with purple shadows falling
      Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,
    I shall not picture these without recalling
      The Sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!

          _October 1916._

        IN MEMORIAM: G.R.Y.T.


    I SPOKE with you but seldom, yet there lay
      Some nameless glamour in your written word,
      And thoughts of you rose often--longings stirred
    By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
    That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
      Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
    But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
      That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.

    So now I ponder, since your day is done,
      Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
      And all the more you might have come to be,
    And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
      And shadows here, may yet completion see
    Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

        _May 1917._



    IF you should be too happy in your days
      And never know an hour of vain regret,
          Do not forget
    That still the shadows darken all my ways.

    If sunshine sweeter still should light your years,
      And you lose nought of all you dearly prize,
          Turn not your eyes
    From my steep track of anguish and of tears.

    And if perhaps your love of me is less
      Than I with all my need of you would choose,
          Do not refuse
    To love enough to lighten my distress.

    And if the future days should parting see
      Of our so different paths that lately met,
          Remember yet
    Those days of storm you weathered through with me.

        _May 1917._

        TO MY BROTHER[A]


    YOUR battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
      Received when in that grand and tragic “show”
    You played your part
      Two years ago,

    And silver in the summer morning sun
      I see the symbol of your courage glow--
    That Cross you won
      Two years ago.

    Though now again you watch the shrapnel fly,
      And hear the guns that daily louder grow,
    As in July
      Two years ago,

    May you endure to lead the Last Advance
      And with your men pursue the flying foe
    As once in France
      Two years ago.

 [A] Captain E. H. Brittain, M.C. Written four days before his death
 in action in the Austrian offensive on the Italian Front, June 15th,

        SIC TRANSIT----


    I AM so tired.
      The dying sun incarnadines the West,
    And every window with its gold is fired,
      And all I loved the best
    Is gone, and every good that I desired
      Passes away, an idle hopeless quest;
    Even the Highest whereto I aspired
      Has vanished with the rest.
    I am so tired.

      _June 1917._

        TO THEM

    I HEAR your voices in the whispering trees,
      I see your footprints on each grassy track,
    Your laughter echoes gaily down the breeze--
      But you will not come back.

    The twilight skies are tender with your smile,
      The stars look down with eyes for which I yearn,
    I dream that you are with me all the while--
      But you will not return.

    The flowers are gay in gardens that you knew,
      The woods you loved are sweet with summer rain,
    The fields you trod are empty now, but you
      Will never come again.

      _June 1917._


    THERE’S a gleam of sun on the grey old street
      Where we used to walk in the Oxford days,
    And dream that the world lay beneath our feet
      In the dawn of a summer morning.

    Now the years have passed, and it’s we who lie
      Crushed under the burden of world-wide woe,
    But the misty magic will never die
      From the dawn of an Oxford morning.

    And the end delays, and perhaps no more
      I shall see the spires of my youth’s delight,
    But they’ll gladden my eyes as in days of yore
      At the dawn of Eternal Morning.

      _June 1917._



    ONLY the thought of a merry smile,
      The wistful dreaming of sad brown eyes--
    A brave young warrior, face aglow
      With the light of a lofty enterprise.

    Only the hope of a gallant heart,
      The steady strife for a deathless crown,
    In Memory’s treasures, radiant now
      With the gleam of a goal beyond renown.

    Only the tale of a dream fulfilled,
      A strenuous day and a well-fought fight,
    A fearless leader who laughed at Death,
      And the fitting end of a gentle knight.

    Only a Cross on a mountain side,
      The close of a journey short and rough,
    A sword laid down and a stainless shield--
      No more--and yet, is it not enough?



    WHEN the years of strife are over and my recollection fades
      Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks away,
    I shall still see, as a vision rising ’mid the War-time shades,
      The ward in France where German wounded lay.

    I shall see the pallid faces and the half-suspicious eyes,
      I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured breath,
    And recall the loud complaining and the weary tedious cries,
      And sights and smells of blood and wounds and death.

    I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered on the floor,
      And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
    And the gleam of knives and bottles through the open theatre door,
      And the operation patients carried in.

    I shall see the Sister standing, with her form of youthful grace,
      And the humour and the wisdom of her smile,
    And the tale of three years’ warfare on her thin expressive face--
      The weariness of many a toil-filled while.

    I shall think of how I worked for her with nerve and heart and mind,
      And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
    And how the dying enemy her tenderness would find
      Beneath her scornful energy of will.

    And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to friend or foe
      When the darkest hour of all is creeping nigh,
    And those who slew our dearest, when their lamps were burning low,
      Found help and pity ere they came to die.

    So, though much will be forgotten when the sound of War’s alarms
      And the days of death and strife have passed away,
    I shall always see the vision of Love working amidst arms
      In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners lay.

        _September 1917._


       (FRANCE, 1917)

    AS we came down from Amiens,
      And they went up the line,
    They waved their careless hands to us,
      And cheered the Red Cross sign.

    And often I have wondered since,
      Repicturing that train,
    How many of those laughing souls
      Came down the line again.



    THROUGH the night-watches of our House of Sighs
      In capable serenity of mind
      You steadily achieve the tasks designed
    With calm, half-smiling, interested eyes;
    Though all-unknowing, confidently wise
      Concerning pain you never felt, you find
    Content from uneventful years arise
      As you toil on, mechanically kind.

    So thus far have your smooth days passed, but when
      The tempest none escape shall cloud your sky,
    And Life grow dark around you, through your pain
    You’ll learn the meaning of your mercy then
      To those who blessed you as you passed them by,
    Nor seek to tread the untroubled road again.



    I KNEW that you had suffered many things,
      For I could see your eyes would often weep
      Through bitter midnight hours when others sleep;
    And in your smile the lurking scorn that springs
      From cruel knowledge of a love, once deep,
    Grown gradually cold, until the stings
    Pierce mercilessly of a past that clings
      Undying to your lonely path and steep.

    So, loved and honoured leader, I would pray
      That hidden future days may hold in store
    Some solace for your yearning even yet,
    And in some joy to come you may forget
      The burdened toil you will not suffer more,
    And see the War-time shadows fade away.

      FRANCE, _1918_.



    WHO shall avenge us for anguish unnamable,
      Rivers of scarlet and crosses of grey,
    Terror of night-time and blood-lust untamable,
      Hate without pity where broken we lay?

    How could we help them, in agony calling us,
      Those whom we laboured to comfort and save,
    How still their moaning, whose hour was befalling us,
      Crushed in a horror more dark than the grave?

    Burning of canvas and smashing of wood above--
      Havoc of Mercy’s toil--shall He forget
    Us that have fallen, Who numbers in gracious love
      Each tiny creature whose life is man’s debt?

    Will He not hear us, though speech is now failing us--
      Voices too feeble to utter a cry?
    Shall they not answer, the foemen assailing us,
      Women who suffer and women who die?

    Who shall avenge us for anguish unnamable,
      Rivers of scarlet and crosses of grey,
    Terror of night-time and blood-lust untamable,
      Hate without pity where broken we lay?



    A NIGHT of storm and thunder crashing by,
      A bitter night of tempest and of rain--
    Then calm at dawn beneath a wind-swept sky,
      And broken flowers that will not bloom again.

    An age of Death and Agony and Tears,
      A cruel age of woe unguessed before--
    Then peace to close the weary storm-wrecked years,
      And broken hearts that bleed for evermore.



    THE stars are shining bright above the camps,
      The bugle calls float skyward, faintly clear;
    Over the hill the mist-veiled motor lamps
      Dwindle and disappear.

    The notes of day’s good-bye arise and blend
      With the low murmurous hum from tree and sod,
    And swell into that question at the end
      They ask each night of God--

    Whether the dead within the burial ground
      Will ever overthrow their crosses grey,
    And rise triumphant from each lowly mound
      To greet the dawning day.

    Whether the eyes which battle sealed in sleep
      Will open to reveillé once again,
    And forms, once mangled, into rapture leap,
      Forgetful of their pain.

    But still the stars above the camp shine on,
      Giving no answer for our sorrow’s ease,
    And one more day with the Last Post has gone
      Dying upon the breeze.

      ÉTAPLES, _1918_.


         (A PLEA)

    BECAUSE I dare to stand outside the gate
      Of that high temple wherein Fame abides,
    And loudly knock, too eager to await
      Whate’er betides,

    May God forgive, since He alone can see
      The joys that others have but I must miss,
    For how shall Compensation come to me
      If not through this?

_Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury._

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